This paper intends to provide a brief examination of scientism as well as a short response to it.
A Definition of Scientism.
We should begin by defining our terms. What is scientism? Philosopher William Craig defines scientism as “the view that we should believe only what can be proven scientifically. In other words, science is the sole source of knowledge and the sole arbiter of truth” (1).
Unfortunately, it is a view that has become increasingly commonplace within society among interested observers of science as well as professional scientists. It is also a view seemingly held particularly by secular naturalists. This latter fact is why it has come to have much relevance within the science-religion debate (2). In one such science-religion exchange with philosopher William Lane Craig, the chemist Peter Atkins, an atheist, made the contentious claim that “science is omnipotent.” Craig did go on to effectively demonstrate the naivety of Atkins’ claim (3), but what Atkins was essentially saying is that science is the ultimate authority and judge over all other things. Science is superior to other avenues of acquiring knowledge, especially more so than the likes of philosophy, theology, history, and everything else. According to Austin Hughes, a Distinguished Professor of Biological Sciences, “it is frequently claimed that natural science does or soon will constitute the entire domain of truth. And this attitude is becoming more widespread among scientists themselves” (4).
The Fallibility of Science.
One way to challenge scientism isn’t only to demonstrate its incoherence, but also to humbly admit the fallibility of science. To say that science is fallible is to say that it, or rather scientists, is prone to making errors and mistakes. To admit this much is far from an attack on what one might consider “good science.”
Both philosophers of science and scientists themselves have observed that because scientific consensus frequently changes its epistemological authority is limited. This is still quite a far cry from an anti-realist position that looks to undermine the entire scientific enterprise wholesale (5). Nonetheless, some have concern over this observation.
One very influential philosopher of science, Thomas Khun, made some significant observations. As Khun argued in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, scientific paradigms go through phases. And when there is a revolution within the paradigm there comes about an abrupt transformation of entire scientific fields, a term now referred to as a “paradigm shift” in the philosophy of science (6). Some might run with this idea and wonder if it is true that paradigms keep changing within science, then how much confidence can one have in the scientific enterprise and the theories currently held? Those are good questions, and as a result of these contributions, Khun is seen as one of the premiere philosophers of science to ever have lived, and his book one of the most cited academic books of all time.
However, that science is fallible means that the scientist’s claims to knowledge about the universe can and should be questioned. Any good scientist will affirm such a methodology because that is how science advances. Science is progressive in the way that it is self-correcting the further scientists advance in knowledge of the physical universe.
Judging by historical precedent, it is quite likely that there are errors in consensus. Of course this is a big statement to make, and I would much prefer to leave it to the experts in the philosophy and science to debate and discuss. But, again, errors in consensus does have historical roots. For example, phrenology was at a time (from about 1810 until 1840) one of the most popular and well-studied branches of neuroscience. It was believed that a person’s character traits (intelligence, aggression, creativity etc.) were all confined to very specific parts of the brain. Recently, I have discovered a similar view presented in the Separate Underlying Proficiency (SUP) model in linguistics and language development. The SUP model basically situated different languages into different parts and zones within one’s brain. So, technically speaking, if you spoke English and Afrikaans, you’d have separate areas in your brain where you’d access these languages from. This was, however, undermined by the development of the Common Underlying Proficiency model that supported the notion that there is a common central “engine” or processing system within the brain that underpinned all language. Phrenology likewise held to a mistaken belief that the bigger a certain part of a person’s brain was the more likely they were to behave in a certain way. Today it is largely obsolete and viewed as a fringe science. This same analogy can be applied to other once popular scientific theories that have now been rendered obsolete, for example, Einstein’s Static Universe theory in cosmology, Maternal Impression in biology, or the Blank State Theory in psychology.
These blunders aside, one would do well to credit science on its enormous benefit to mankind since its early beginnings in the 17th century. However, it remains that in acknowledging science’s and the scientist’s fallibility, one should exercise humility. To deify science, even to the extent of attributing characteristics usually reserved for the God of classical theism (a la. Akins), is to go in the opposite direction into arrogance. That science is fallible therefore is a cause for concern to advocates of scientism.
Scientism’s Logical Incoherence.
Scientism is grounded on the maxim that “only what can be known by science or quantified and empirically tested is rational and true.” However, it isn’t necessarily challenging to show that such a statement is self-refuting. The most obvious issue here is that this statement itself cannot be said to be a statement of science. Rather it is a philosophical statement about science that cannot be empirically verified. As philosopher J.P. Moreland explains, since it cannot meet the expectations of scientism it cannot “then by the statement’s own standards… be true or rationally held” (7). Philosopher Craig is of the same view writing that “Scientism tells us that we should not believe any proposition that cannot be scientifically proven. But what about that very proposition itself? It cannot itself be scientifically proven. Therefore we should not believe it. Scientism thus defeats itself” (8).
It is also apparent that the very methodologies of science cannot be validated by the scientific method which is another major problem for scientism. The validation of science is a philosophical issue, hence not a scientific one. One of the assumptions of science is the reliability of senses. This suggests that before we can ever do science we must place our trust in our senses that they give us reliable and accurate information about a mind-independent physical world (9). Thus, science must assume that we are rational creatures with rational minds, and that the universe itself is rational in a way that we can know and study it. This sense of awe is perhaps what Einstein himself had in mind when he famously quipped that “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible” (10).
Further, science must assume the uniformity in nature. This means that science assumes that one can legitimately infer from the past to the future and from the examined cases to unexamined ones of the same kind. Schumacher puts this into perspective, “Science has faith in logic, mathematics, natural laws, and the intelligibility of the universe and believes all such things are firm and will never change. People also act on faith every day from meals they eat in restaurants, medicine they take from doctors, and marriages they participate in with their spouse” (11). There is no reason why we should just assume that the same will happen in future or in unexamined cases. According to Moreland, “Science appears to assume the existence of universals and the uniformity of nature to justify such inductive inferences from the examined members of a class to all the members of a class (past and future), but these assumptions cannot themselves be justified inductively” (12). The justification of induction is a philosophical issue, not a scientific one.
Fourthly, science also assumes that the reality of the laws of logic. In my dialogue with philosopher Tim McGrew, he explained that the “Laws of logic are topic-neutral patterns of reasoning that display the necessary connections, such as entailment and contradiction, between propositions.” McGrew goes on to explain that “One of the virtues that good scientific theories possess is that they tell us not only what to expect but what not to expect. In limiting cases, they tell us what must happen (if nature is left to itself) and what cannot happen (again, if nature is left to itself). But without logic, we cannot even see that much, because we cannot know what our scientific theories rule out. That is one of the key ways in which logic is fundamental to the practice of science” (13).
Science then also assumes moral, epistemic, and methodological values. According to astrophysicist Deborah Haarsma there are “Many questions related to morality, ethics, love and so on, are questions that science simply isn’t equipped to answer on its own. Science can provide some important context, but religious, historical, relational, legal, and other ways of knowing are needed” (14). Thus, that most scientists and philosophers hold to moral realism, namely that certain acts are objectively evil as opposed to good or vice versa, is a conclusion that is beyond empirical verification. It is impossible to provide via the scientific method that it is morally wrong to murder human beings in order to study the effects of death on the body, or undergo experimentation on dead bodies. Craig informs us, “And yet what could you do to prove scientifically to these Nazi scientists that what they were doing was wrong? What experiments could you perform, what data could you gather, to prove that this is morally wrong? Moral values are not found in a test tube. The point is this, there are ethical truths and yet these are not open to being proven scientifically” (15). Yet, it is quite clear that the scientific practice makes full use of an ethical compass, for instance, experiments are to be conducted ethically and honestly. Thus, scientists try to uphold moral virtues to the best of their abilities.
Besides morality, there are numerous metaphysical beliefs, often referred to by philosophers as properly basic beliefs that we are justified in holding to, that cannot be empirically verified by the scientific method. For example, we, as objective realists, believe that the external world exists as opposed to it being some very convincing illusion produced by our imaginations. However, there is no possible way that anyone can scientifically prove such a belief. There is no way to prove that we are not just a brain in some scientist’s lab that who is giving us the impression that the external world is real. If one attempted to do so then he’d be arguing in a circle. Thus, that we believe that the external world exists is a faith based belief, and one that science is powerless to answer.
In conclusion of this essay I think the case is fairly persuasive that scientism is not a logically coherent worldview. Not only is is logically defeating but it is grounded upon numerous scientifically unverifiable beliefs, which only goes to demonstrate its incoherence and self-contradictory nature.
1. Craig, W. 2011. Is Scientism Self Refuting? Available.
2. Robinson, M. 2006, “Hysterical Scientism: The Ecstasy of Richard Dawkins,” in Harper’s Magazine.
3. Youtube. 2009. Dr William Lane Craig vs Dr Peter Atkins highlight. Available.
4. Hughes, A. 2012. The Folly of Scientism. Available.
5. Craig, W. 2008. Reasonable Faith: Christian Truth and Apologetics (3rd edition). p. 472 (Scribd ebook format)
6. Bird, A. 2004. Thomas Kuhn. Available.
7. Moreland, J. 1987. Scaling the Secular City: A Defense of Christianity. Chapter 7: Science & Christianity.
8. G. Craig, W. 2011. Ibid. Available.
9. Moreland, J. 1987. Ibid.
10. From “Physics and Reality” (1936).
11. Schumacher, R. An Examination of Atheism’s Truth Claims. Available.
12. Moreland, J. 1987. Ibid.
13. Personal correspondence with Tim McGrew (Facebook).
14. Interview with Dr. Deborah Haarsma in Religion, Science and Society. 2015.
15. Craig, W. Has Science Made Faith in God Impossible? Available.